Nigeria was just three minutes away from sending Argentina packing from the World Cup. But a momentary lapse in attention allowed Marcos Rojo to steal ahead of Victor Moses and curl a rocket past Francis Uzoho.
Those three minutes separated a group of youngsters from potentially legendary status. ‘Heartbreak’ does not quite capture the full depths of the emotion, but it comes pretty close.
Sluggish at times, captivating at others, and just plain self-destructive on occasion, the Super Eagles overcame a listless show in their opening game against Croatia to leave Russia with their heads held high, backs ramrod-straight.
As the team heads home, much remains to unpack from the entire series.
Coach Gernot Rohr has always maintained that this team is one for the future, one being built to compete at the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
As one of the youngest, if not the youngest, squads at the tournament, Nigeria have a team with the real potential to do great things down the line. A few players may be on their way out, either on account of age or productivity.
But for each one going, there are at least two more waiting in the wings, as the B team’s May friendly against Atletico Madrid showed. They may have lost 3-2, but the second string showed glimpses of real threat.
Gernot Rohr’s job isn’t safe as NFF elections loom, while skipper John Mikel Obi is a veteran who may not make the next World Cup. A performance like their last two, notably the win against Iceland, could have earned them, at the very least, a draw against Croatia.
Beyond the football however, there are the unseen hands at work which got the Super Eagles this far.
Long notorious for their chaotic build up, and even more disorganised at major tournaments, Nigeria’s trip to Russia was uncharacteristically bereft of incident.
From allowances being paid on time, through world class travel and lodging at some of the world’s best facilities, and playing friendly games against top teams, the NFF pulled out all the stops for this team.
While all this good work did not take the team past the first round — and there are those who might argue that less pampered teams (like the 2014 version) produced better results — it did show what was possible with some stability and good, long-term planning.
Federation elections are due in September. Rohr’s position is not exactly strengthened if the verdict goes against his current bosses, in light of this early exit.
From a football point of view, Rohr has his own potential dressing room troubles to contend with. Certain players have been unhappy about his style of coaching, according to KweséESPN sources, but have bottled their feelings for the good of the team. Some of that discontent might find expression now.
How Nigerian football officials handle the coming few weeks will determine if the gains of the team’s performance at the World Cup will translate to long term good for the country’s biggest sport, or if it will be another reset to starting from scratch.